If you ask VMLY&R Health, they’ll tell you an old dog can in fact learn new tricks.
“We rescue this dog and then that dog can save us,” says Natxo Diaz, chief creative officer at VMLY&R Health Spain, about the abandoned dogs at the center of Dogs Without Borders, a project created for KDog, a canine medical detection unit founded by the Institut Curie in Paris.
The Dogs Without Borders program is, in Diaz’s words, like “setting up a health system for remote communities.”
The initiative, launched in 2022, has the potential to radically change medical care for the roughly half of the world’s population that lacks access to basic diagnostics, he says.
In low-income and lower-middle-income countries the situation is difficult, with less than 20% of people having access to even the simplest of diagnostic tools, according to The Lancet.
At the center of this burgeoning health system are dogs that have been trained to detect breast cancer and other diseases. They can then be deployed all across the world, from villages deep in the Amazon or to mountaintops in the far reaches of Spain. The animals often perform their assigned task more accurately than conventional tests and more quickly too, with results in 15 to 30 seconds, Diaz says.
A sniffing success
Dogs Without Borders evolved out of KDog’s earlier work on volatile organic compounds (VOCs), odors long known to be associated with malignant wounds and are also biomarkers of cancer and other diseases.
In 2016, KDog collected 130 samples from women, some diagnosed with breast cancer and others cancer-free, and submitted them to Nykios and Thor, two Belgian Malinois who were the first dogs trained by the company.
The results, published a year later, could not have been more impressive: the pair’s success rate when it came to detecting breast cancer was a perfect 100%.
Diaz credits COVID-19 with helping to accelerate the openness within the medical community to using dogs for diagnostic purposes. In a number of studies, trained dogs were able to detect COVID-19 faster and more accurately than PCR tests.
Dogs Without Borders is now operating in three countries—Brazil, Morocco, and Spain—and the organization’s website and several short films have been created by VMLY&R Health to raise awareness and funds for the venture.
As the program continues to grow, initial resistance on the part of some communities is quickly being overcome, according to Maria Claudia Da Rocha Miranda, a doctor with Projeto KDog Brasil.
“Patients ask us, ‘I am afraid of dogs. Will I be in direct contact with them?’ It’s not the case at all,” she explains. “We give women a kit where they put a patch under their bra during the night and then they take this patch to the dogs to smell it. The dogs don’t have any physical contact with the women.”
The kit is one of the signatures of the program and its design is a collective effort on the part of creatives in different VMLY&R Health offices around the world. The waterproof container used to hold samples can easily be 3D-printed and is shaped like a bone. The instructions inside the kits are illustrated, without any words, visually leading the patient through the simple process of collecting a sample.
“It’s something that you can provide to any country and they can mass produce it,” Diaz says. “We wanted to design and craft something that was easy to implement no matter where you are.”
He says the bone shape as an “homage” to the dogs, who he calls “the heroes of this campaign.”
A ‘second job’ for dogs
Aside from the initial nervousness on the part of some regarding direct contact with dogs, Da Rocha Miranda reports a positive reception by the communities where the program is operating.
“It’s a sign that people are changing and we are becoming more open-minded to new possibilities,” she adds.
Dogs Without Borders reports that dogs of various breeds, as well as mixed-breed ones, have the potential to be trained to detect cancer and other illnesses, though some breeds of shepherds and hounds are better at sniffing out diseases.
In addition to breast cancer, the dogs in the program can detect malaria, diabetes, COVID-19 and Parkinson’s after three to six months of training. For Diaz, the fact that hunting dogs are especially suited to the task is another positive of the initiative. In Spain, thousands of these dogs are abandoned each year when they are no longer able to hunt.
“It’s a huge problem,” Diaz says. “[Dogs Without Borders offers them] a second job after their first job is over and also a second chance to live as they will be euthanized if they are sitting and no one comes to adopt them.”
The dogs—of every breed—that are partners in this program play the central role of diagnosing the diseases. Another thing dogs are exceptionally good at: pulling on our heart strings and attracting support for the initiative.
“Everybody loves, or at least most people love, dogs. There’s something touching in the fact that even the most forgotten dogs, ones that have been confined to cages, can have a mission in life,” Diaz says. “We all have a mission and for these dogs it is one that we didn’t expect—to save lives.”